An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire
The NSW Riverina town of Strathdee is fictional, but that doesn’t stop the setting of Emily Maguire’s fifth novel from being all too real. The storyline is familiar too, both in fiction and reality – the young and pretty Bella Michaels is abducted and brutally murdered. The narrative alternates between Bella’s sister Chris, a local barmaid, and May Norman, a Sydney crime reporter looking for a breakthrough story. As the eyes of the world turn on Strathdee, the darker undercurrents of this seemingly sleepy town are laid bare.
Maguire plays with the conventions of pretty-dead-girl crime fiction – a police investigation, a cast of suspicious characters, a shocking twist that exposes the monster under the readers’ nose – but about halfway through An Isolated Incident, it becomes clear that this isn’t that kind of novel. Instead, while the police do their work in the background, the novel focuses on Chris as she is consumed by her grief, her suspicion of those around her, and growing sense that Bella’s presence hasn’t left her entirely. It’s not a spoiler, nor a criticism, to say the novel’s ending isn’t the kind of neat, satisfying conclusion we’re used to in this genre.
Maguire’s characters are complex and compelling, particularly Chris’s ex-husband Nate, whose tender nature is at odds with his darker past. Switching between Chris’s country charm and May’s self-loathing professionalism, Maguire’s prose is concise and confident, affecting without being maudlin, horrifying without being gruesome. As Chris and May separately grapple with the media attention given to the case, the novel also offers an insight into the ethically questionable world of crime reportage, even considering the effects of marches, vigils and other kinds of well-meaning activism on those left behind. But this timely and gripping novel’s most unsettling, and enduring, undercurrent lies in the attitudes of the innocent men, the ones who aren’t killers but are happy to accept their mates’ violence as part of the small-town social order. This too is sadly familiar.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.